Unitarian Universalist Faith and Mental Health

When the early and mid-1800s saw the beginning of compassionate methods of caring for mentally ill people, Universalists and Unitarians from both the medical and social reform communities were prominent in developing and promoting them. A deeply felt religious sensibility, especially the belief in the inherent worth of each human soul, and the conviction that they had a responsibility to improve life in this world, is what motivated this work. These tenets have been and remain at the core of Universalist and Unitarian belief systems.

Since the inception of psychiatry in the early 1900s, its relationship to religion has been seen quite differently by different parties. Sigmund Freud viewed religion as an illusion and God as a longing for a “father figure.” On the other hand, Carl G. Jung said, “Among all my patients over the age of 35,… every one of them fell ill because he had lost what the living religions of every age have given to their followers, and none of them has really been healed who did not regain his religious outlook.” Many psychiatrists have been deeply suspicious of religion, because they see religious ideation in their more severely disturbed patients.

However, recently things have been changing. Since the 1990s there has been an explosion of studies on religion and how it affects physical and mental healing. Most of this published empirical data suggests that religious commitment plays a significantly beneficial role in preventing mental and physical illness, improving how people cope with mental and physical illness, and facilitating recovery from illness.

Those aspects which seem to be most helpful are that religion:

  • offers a sense of hope, meaning, and purpose, and thus emotional well-being
  • affords solutions to many kinds of emotional and situational conflicts
  • establishes moral guidelines to serve self and others
  • promotes social cohesion
  • offers a social identity and a place to belong

The principles of Unitarian Universalism significantly contribute to such helpful religious characteristics. In particular, the principles of:

  • Inherent worth and dignity of every person
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relationships
  • Acceptance of one another and spiritual growth in our congregations

speak directly to the emotional and social well-being of Unitarian Universalist parishioners.

Since both spiritual and rational world views are embraced in our sources of religious truth, self-direction and internal control are enhanced. Further, religious characteristics that have been found empirically to be harmful to mental health, including guilt, devaluing human nature, punishment in hell, and paranoia about evil, are not generally true of Unitarian Universalists.